The Universality of Property Rights

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Ownership is an extremely rudimentary concept. Simply attempt to take a toy from a toddler’s hand and you can reasonably expect one very clear and emphatic response from that child’s mouth: “MINE!”

Obviously this is an oversimplification of all the components of the idea of possession, but the basic premise behind it remains unchanged. In essence, if something belongs to someone, then no one but the owner is entitled to the use of the item in question. In the same way that no one is entitled to the use of another’s body except its respective owner, the only person entitled to the use of any form of property is its owner. However, this essay will not focus on whether or not property rights exist, or even how property comes to be justly owned. Instead, the reader should presuppose that property can in fact be owned and, provided that obtainment of property is completed in accordance with basic principles of justice, that individuals do have a right to the property that they own. With those notions in mind, it shall be the purpose of this essay to debunk the prevailing myth amongst the left that adequately recognized property rights serve only to benefit the privileged classes while producing only detrimental effects amongst the lower classes.

The "Public Good"

First, the myth itself should be examined. As in many modern political and socioeconomic debates, the bourgeoisie and their ideological “cohorts” in the upper class use property rights to prevent expansive policies enacted by the government. More often than not, these policies have some sort of adverse effect on the on the property of these groups in order to produce a desirable outcome for largely lower class individuals (e.g. social welfare, progressive tax policies, socialized health care, etc.). Naturally, opposition to these socialistic programs tends to breed resentment amongst the lower classes and against the argument of property rights themselves. Essentially, every time a well-to-do coalition forms against redistributive government programs, proponents of these policy decisions use the opposition’s economic status as fodder to stoke working class resentment.

At this point, I want to make it known that I cringe at my own use of socioeconomic classes to define ideological groups of people, or even groups of people in general. I am well aware that “working class” does not innately mean what we consider “liberal” any more than “upper class” means “conservative.” Additionally, I do not view economic struggles as being between classes of people, each competing for control over the other. These are very Marxian ideals and I abhor them. Rather, I look at these kinds of competitions on an individualistic level as in a true capitalistic system (which we are not). However, if I am to examine how property rights benefit poor individuals as well as rich ones, then I will admittedly save time by generalizing and saying that it is, more often than not, groups of wealthy individuals in favor of property rights and groups of poorer individuals against them.

Now, it is only fair to admit that the working class’s distaste towards the common perception of property rights is, at the very least, more than understandable. After all, as noted above, the middle and upper class appear to be able to drape themselves in the banner of property rights whenever they wish to halt a government program that would take from them and redistribute their wealth and property to the lower classes, or anyone else for that matter.

But, when a local government wants to use its power of eminent domain to build a shopping mall, is it the land of the wealthy that is usually seized? When Atlanta had to build great sports complexes and stadiums leading up to the 1996 Olympics, was it the upper class that they seized land from? Even the massive land grabs conducted by Robert Moses in New York City during the 1950’s and 1960’s were not halted until Moses proposed an elevated highway through the heart of middleclass neighborhoods in Manhattan, causing much outcry and political opposition – no one spoke up when similar highways were proposed and constructed through working class communities.

The poor, more often than not, are simply forgotten and looked over and their right to the use and ownership of their own property is nullified by societal regulation. To them, only the rich have property rights, therefore property rights should not be recognized for their own good and self-preservation.

However, what opponents of property rights fail to realize is that this is not how our system is supposed to work. The amount of property one owns should not and does not alter whether or not one has a right to his property. Everyone of all races, all socioeconomic classes, and both sexes has an exclusive right to their own property; it is simply not always recognized properly. Just as a right to free speech is meant to protect minority speech and not majority speech, a properly instituted right to property is supposed to defend those who are otherwise unable to defend themselves.

Is this to say that property rights do not apply to the rich? Of course not – just as the right to free speech applies to both majorities and minorities, property rights are meant to apply to both the wealthy and the poor even if they are specifically formulated to protect one more often than the other. In a perfect system, the government would be unable to seize anyone’s property without their consent and mutual agreement (in the case of taxes, a tax on consumption and not on income would be more desirable as individuals could at least have some control over what they give up to the government and what they save). As the law exists now in our codified Constitution, however, the government does have the power to seize land for “public use” and with “just compensation.”

The question remains, what qualifies as “public use?” In strictly Madisonian terms, the government does not have the authority to do anything that does not relate to one of its allotted, constitutional duties. Ergo, in order for the government to justly take something for “public use,” the “public use” should fall under one of the approved, and codified, functions of the government. If it does not, the taking is not justified.

Under the current Supreme Court precedent of incorporating the Bill of Rights to the states (which is outrageous, but a topic for another essay), the 5th Amendment’s Taking’s Clause has applied to the states ever since Chicago, B. & Q. Railroad Co. v. Chicago (1897). This is not as much of a problem with concern to property rights as a later Supreme Court case which drastically changed the meaning of the Takings Clause altogether.

In Berman v. Parker (1954), the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in an 8-0 decision that the government could seize unblighted, private property in D.C. and reallocate it to other private citizens (I say “unblighted” because, as per the usual, the government had already been taking blighted property since the beginning of the Progressive Era without any contest). This shattered the idea of “public use” right out of the Constitution. As Justice Douglas wrote in his opinion, all that needed to be proven was a “public purpose” for a seizure of private property in order for it to be legitimate. In this particular instance, the Court ruled that there was nothing prohibiting Congress (except maybe the Constitution) from using its power of eminent domain to make Washington, D.C. “beautiful as well as sanitary.” No longer did the taking have to be justified as fulfilling one of the governments’ constitutional duties; instead, the taking just had to serve some fleeting want of the general population, constitutional or not. What consolation is it to be given “just compensation” if the taking is not even done with a just cause? So, with ruling of eight men, any constitutional protection of property rights was abolished.

Again, these examples just continue to demonstrate the flaws in our system of government. In a philosophically just system, there would be no taking without the consent of the owner and at a price agreed upon by the owner. In a constitutionally just system, the government would be unable to take private property except through one of its legitimate functions. No longer would the lower classes, or the rich for that matter, have to worry about having their property seized and given to a private purpose. No longer would property be taken by the government at the whim of a private, influential interest who wishes to build some shopping mall on the property of those who do not wish to sell it. No longer would our money, which represents our time and effort, be taken from us through taxes and redistributed to banks or whatever industry currently under the government’s attention (economic development, I would like to point out, is not one of the powers of the government and therefore is not even a constitutionally legitimate use of tax funds taken from us without our consent). Unfortunately, not only is our government not adhering to perfect philosophical justice, but it is also failing to follow its own, codified Constitution.

However, as stated earlier, just because something is not recognized does not mean it is nonexistent. As demonstrated, only simple logic is needed to understand property rights – if something belongs to you, it is yours, not someone else’s. Consequently, if someone else takes your property without consent, it is theft. And, throughout history, governments have been the greatest thieves of all. Whether conforming to the historical precedent of seizing property from the poor or following the more recent trend of seizing property from the wealthy, the government has continuously defied our property rights and breached its own contract. It is at this time that all people should begin to reassert the right to their own property and, at the same time, learn that they have to respect others’ rights to their property as well. Only then will the property of the poor be safe, only then will the property of the rich be secure, and only then will our property truly belong to us.

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